Validating Sustainability/Resilience and Quality of Life Indices to Identify Farm- and Community-Level Needs and Research and Education Opportunities

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2016: $203,560.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2018
Grant Recipient: Delta Land & Community, Inc.
Region: Southern
State: Arkansas
Principal Investigator:
Dr. James Worstell
Delta Land & Community

Information Products


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: decision support system
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, permaculture
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems


    Ecological resilience has the potential to improve the ability of sustainability research to help systems survive and thrive in the face of disturbances such as climate change. Ecological resilience research focuses on the internal qualities of complex adaptive systems which enable continuing adaptation and innovation. Prominent among the qualities enabling such resilience is local self-organization. Locally self-organized processing and marketing has long been recognized as a crucial component of sustainable agricultural systems. This study determined the common qualities of such resilient locally organized food systems and compared them with those proposed by the most prominent resilience frameworks in the literature. Our case studies of resilient food systems in recalcitrant areas of the U.S. South have affirmed that eight common qualities are consistent with the most prominent frameworks. Information from the case studies and focus groups resulting in the eight qualities laid a foundation for establishment of quantitative indicators and thus refine a Sustainability/Resilience Index. Such a quantitative index enables investigation of the relationships between agricultural system resilience and economic and social demographic indicators. Thus the index provides a first attempt to elucidate how a system's internal qualities determine social, ecological and economic outcomes. 

    The second aspect of the project involved operationalization and measurement of indicators focused on the sustainability and resilience of local agrifood systems in the southern United States with the purpose of constructing data-driven tools for theory building and informing development programs and policy. The Local Agrifood Systems Sustainability/Resilience Index (SRI) was constructed through insights from literature and prior case studies. Building from that work emphasizing the locally modifiable qualities of resilience, this study contributes by analyzing publicly available data sources at the county level. Piloted with data from the southern region, findings suggest state and regional differences that may be informative for development and tracking change in the future, as new waves of data become available.

    The third aspect of the project explored the relationship between the index and quality of life (health and poverty).  Although some approaches to resilience incorporate resources from multiple levels of analysis and diverse social goals, others work to construct domain specific measures focused on the local level to provide opportunities to explore the relationships between resilience and issues such as inequality, poverty, health, and efforts to improve wellbeing. This approach is important for community practice, programmatic interventions, and policy options. Informed by livelihoods and community capitals and a broad collection of resilience writings, we explored associations between local agrifood system indicators and other markers of food systems, broader socioeconomic development, and health at the county level in the Southern US. Of interest are the patterns of association between socioeconomic status, social capital, agrifood system resilience, traditional food desert measures, and population health outcomes, namely self-rated health and premature age-adjusted mortality. Findings will help scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to have a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which development of local agrifood systems intersect with broader development goals. This study also contributes to conversations around integration of ecological and community resilience, sustainability, and social development.

    Finally, this study validates the above findings with ten additional case studies in high poverty and low health region. This work integrates poverty, health and resilience to point a route toward interventions which can decrease poverty and increase health while creating resilient systems.

    Project objectives:

    Objective 1.  Explore the qualities conditioning ecological resilience in highly productive Southern agricultural systems (Delta, High Plains) through semi-structured interviews, focus groups and case studies in adjoining counties with opposite resilience scores.

    Objective 2.  Elaborate and refine a resilience index based on county level secondary databases.

    Objective 3.  Determine the relationship between the resilience index and poverty, health and population indicators in regions which rank high on the resilience index and low on quality of life indicators.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.